The Outsiders

May 30, 2008

Grady Towers wrote an article in 1987 called “The Outsiders” (republished here), which 20 years later is still relevant.

Towers raises several questions that I’d like to explore in more detail. I’ll cover one of the interesting ones in this post.

One of the problems faced by all gifted persons is learning to focus their efforts for prolonged periods of time. Since so much comes easily to them, they may never acquire the self-discipline necessary to use their gifts to the fullest. Hollingworth describes how the habit begins.

Where the gifted child drifts in the school unrecognized, working chronically below his capacity (even though young for his grade), he receives daily practice in habits of idleness and daydreaming. His abilities never receive the stimulus of genuine challenge, and the situation tends to form in him the expectation of an effortless existence [3, p. 258].

This is a serious problem for gifted children, including my own.

I avoided it by being curious and irrational. I bet against the status quo by doing poorly in school in favor of the subjects that interested me, and it so happens that I won the bet. But you won’t. No one can expect to win a bet whose expected value is negative, so it’s silly to make that your policy.

Still, it does seem that the status quo doesn’t work for us. My advice is different depending on your age:

To Young People

If you are a young person of high intelligence who wants to conquer this creeping blasé, I suggest doing some of what I did and not doing other parts. Like I said, it’s not in your best interests to fully bet against the school system. Instead, play it.

Worst case scenario, slog through your classes doing the minimum to keep a B average. Meanwhile, pursue your passions. Do something monumentally difficult — bonus points if it looks good on a college application.

Alternately, make it your goal to manipulate the situation such that you can set up a non traditional educational setting for yourself, that will allow you pursue your passions while getting educational credit for doing so. You can do this in a number of ways, including Existential home schooling, or a special arrangement swith the school district or individual teachers.

It’s a difficult social engineering problem, but you’re a genius, you’ll figure it out.

At the end of the process, if you must, go to a top school for the most difficult subject you can imagine, or don’t go to school at all.

To Adults

I think you may have it worse. You may be the slightly dysfunctional product of a school system that failed you. At this point I think you should find a difficult problem of some social importance, and make that your obsession. I know it may be difficult for you to work and obsess separately, so I suggest you work as little as possible, and try to live with some austerity. Alternately, set a reasonable time period and develop a plan to become independently wealthy, which really isn’t that difficult.

The effect of finding a difficult problem to obsess over is that you will train your mind to be curious. If you have a tangible issue to solve, you will be forced to learn about it and tinker with solutions. The act of learning, which has been largely stolen from you by a lifetime of rote memorization and negative affect toward the educational machine, will become second nature when you put it in a practical, interesting context. I have no doubt you find something interesting and know a great deal about it, but I bet it’s not of practical value.

People with your affliction have the minutia of the fictional Star Trek universe emblazoned on their short term memory. They know everything about a particular genus of organisms like birds or dinosaurs. They memorize hollywood movies complete with scripts, actors, and meta information.

These are the rabid flailings of an idle mind with more horse power than it has information to process. If a mind like that can be trained to focus on problems of difficulty and importance, instead of wasted as a repository for disconnected taxonomies, the possibilities are endless.

You will live a happier life if you are engaged in a meaningful pursuit, and if that pursuit helps others as well, all the better.

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20 Responses to “The Outsiders”

  1. Nick G Says:

    I just discovered this blog, and felt compelled to comment. This is my response to what I’ve seen of this site as a whole, not just this particular post. And this is not directed just to LG, but to everyone who reads this and relates.

    I’m a smart guy, though I don’t think I qualify as a “genius” according to the standard metrics. I’ve never had any official IQ testing, but the various GRE-IQ converters on the web (I don’t know how valid these are, but there is clearly some correlation) seem to place me around the 99.9th percentile or IQ in the range of 145-150. So apologies if I appear mildly retarded to anyone.

    Regardless, I have had some similar experiences to those described by various people on this blog. I have had trouble focusing my efforts, because I seem to be good at most things, with no one stand-out talent. I have often been lonely due to lack of intellectual peers, though I am very well socially adjusted.

    The worst forms of loneliness have less to do with lacking friends with “performative” types of intelligence (e.g. for problem solving) and more to do with lacking those who have existential orientations and deep ways of looking at the world. I think this is why I am drawn to artists, but authentic artists are hard to find. The easiest to find, of course, are those who are already famous and long dead.

    As for graduate school, I started recently at a “good school” and I have to say, that though there are some quite bright individuals (especially among the faculty), I haven’t seen much in the way of existential intelligence–perhaps because it is rarely expressed in academic settings, but perhaps because it is rarely expressed at all.

    Finally, I wanted to purpose that maybe there should be an “LG Forum”. The blog format is fine for LG himself to post, but I think it might help others to vent their own frustrations if anyone could start a thread. Could the world use an “intelligence support group”?

    Speaking of which, what about the high-IQ societies? I like the idea since it seems like it could solve the whole alienation problem. But I am also rather skeptical of them. What does everyone think?

    Nick G

  2. Ken Says:

    Thanks for the note, Nick.

    Actually, the Prometheus society has some material available hypothesizing about why high IQ societies are plagued by schisms, and why they do not produce anything extraordinarily meritorious.

    The gist of it is:

    1) IQ is positively correlated with social dysfunction. This sort of dooms organizations built around high IQs, doesn’t it?

    2) People with high IQs have literally been conditioned to be lazy. Our society is set up to provide moderate challenges to the average person. To a child in the 170+ IQ range, this “challenge” is numbing, and they become accustomed to everything in their life coming effortlessly. They are trained not to wield their intellect with full effect… therefore, they don’t tend to produce anything of merit.

    Another plague you mentioned is focus — since we are good at everything, what do we choose to focus on? Generally we jump from one unfinished project to the next, as they lose their magic and become tedious. I think that happens when they change from problems waiting for solutions, to workable solutions waiting to implemented.

    So I ask you Nick: how do we solve these problems to actually follow through on building a valuable, online, high IQ community?

  3. Nick G Says:

    In a sense, I think that solving the community problem would largely solve the motivation problem. Any task only performed for one’s own benefit will not be completed when feeling tired, lazy, etc. So I think the important thing for getting projects finished is to 1) believe in the outcome, and 2) to get people together who will hold each other responsible. The second is like having a “workout buddy”. Neither person wants to let the other down, so they both persevere. But it’s hard to hold people accountable in that way online. I think the best role of the web, for community purposes, is getting people together *offline* who would not meet otherwise. Then, if people aren’t responding, you can call them, knock on their door, etc.

    Of course for this to work you have to believe in the project first. I think it also helps if the *goal* of the project is directed towards some ideal. Sometimes, when I’m lacking motivation, I think of all the people in the world immeasurably less fortunate in circumstances than myself. Suddenly, I feel like I have a responsibility to improve things. It’s no longer just about me, and therefore my being tired is no longer an excuse. This is also a good way to choose projects. Do things that will benefit others as well as your self; then, finishing a project becomes imperative. This could be done out of pure altruism, but it need not be. As Wittgenstein said, if there is an ethical reward, it must reside in the act itself. And I think it does.

    So I guess I would say: IQ is really only a part of this equation. Strength of character and will are probably equally important. But it’s essential to note that I believe these traits can be developed by a person who takes an interest in them. Sometimes that requires a personal crisis, but the point is to catch people when they are having crises so that they are particularly interested and able to change their course.

    In summary: the real goal, as I see it, is to create a community of people who are both smart and committed to something greater than themselves. The higher purpose acts not only as a cohesive, but also helps subdue internal difficulties. I may disagree with the leader of group X, but if I believe in the work, then perhaps that is enough.

    Nick

  4. Ken Says:

    So what you propose is that we should create a sort of beacon for the highly intelligent and engage them in philanthropic work.

    I can’t disagree with the premise, but the perennial questions of this blog have not been answered:

    How does one recognize a genius among the millions who are not? How does one contact those geniuses? More importantly, how does one create a reliable pipeline of people without any strongly correlated features or interests?

    The answer that’s been proposed here is to go to a place traditionally known to attract highly intelligent people. To reverse that scenario and actually create the place that geniuses go seems like a simple task:

    1) Be a genius
    2) Work on something that’s tremendously difficult and interesting.

    So, Nick, I invite you to be the leader — develop an interesting project of social importance, and I pledge, in the twilight of the public, to bring my considerable expertise in technology, marketing, and organizational leadership to bear.

    It’s your ball.

  5. marcusbird Says:

    Hrm… this is a very interesting post. I’m not exactly sure how to comment on it. Because I was literally surfing the web, looking for “coping with genius”, and came upon this.

    I think there are some maddening aspects to certain kinds of genius. The kind that make you work endless hours, become socially isolated and feeling a crippling loneliness.

    I think I want to find some kind of… I dunno, group maybe that I can interact with, hehe.

    Either way, thanks for the post.

  6. Damian Says:

    Just stumbled onto your site, sounds incredible.Two ingredients- 1. problem focus and 2. social relevance are paramount, why? because they are waht give the meaning to the enterprise. For over a decade I have had a recurring vision of a semi-professional group of super-talented individuals working on a set of problems, widely regarded as “insoluble” or impossible” by the specialists who have been defeated by them. The only commonality between these peroblems is 1. their intractability to date and 2. their extreme social significance or technological importance. I christened this informal group of volunteers “the World Problems Workgroup” or “the Impossibility Workgroup”.The group itself is highly informal, small and very wide mandate-unlike a Govt or research lab it can work on literally any problem which the members are interested in. The problems and the solution progress is posted on a website as required.The workgroup will build a “portfolio” of successful solutions which will enable it to work at high-level consultancy with industry and.or govts. The group develops methodology for admitting new members, e.g. an online binary multichoice questionaire with 100 levels, which tests precisely the skills required. I envisage superior flexibility and curiosity will perhaps be more productive than raw IQ, whatever that happens to be.
    Some preliminary suggestions for the World Problems List(in no particular order):
    -Quantum Gravity:how to integrate Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity?
    -the Vornoi manuscript: is it a Renaissance hoax or a genuine encryption?
    -Efficient Markets Hypothesis: can global capital markets be consistently outperformed, or are they “efficient” to high approximation?
    -global poverty:take your pick
    -biomorphogenesis: how do complex multi-celled organisms (like humans)take the form they do purely through the process of repeated cell division?
    -superconductivity: attainable at room-temperature?
    … …

  7. mike Says:

    @ken

    I agree with you on us being lazy, i usually read 1/10,000 comments that isn’t stupid and that gets my brain engaged.

    Also at this point in my life there is nothing about life that i don’t understand so everything is just so boring as hell.

    And i am basically not allowed to engage my own brain because anything that i say is immediately seen as stupid because it doesn’t go along with the herd.

    Whenever i try to have an opinion that is not popular people usually refer to some “guru” in the field and say something like “Oh so you think you know better than a PRO huh?

    Also on any given topic there is a herd of people that are on one side and a herd of people on the other side. And my opinion is always way the fuck off in space somewhere and nowhere even close to either side. And I’ve learned something. The whole “you can have your opinion” thing, you have to read the fine print. It would go something like this:

    You are entitled to your opinion.*

    *of the 2-3 approved opinions

    Like if people ask my political opinion they don’t actually want my political opinion they really mean “which of the 3 approved political stances have you chosen?” It’s either democrat, republican, or if your really edgy Libertarian.

    So i basically give up on life. I’m sure that i would do great a few hundred years from now but for now i’m useless in this current society.

  8. Jack Says:

    ***Disclaimer***

    I am in NO WAY as smart as anyone on this site. As a matter of fact, I’m probably THE most retarded person posting on this site. In school I maintained a B average and got 1450 on the new SAT. So I’m a whole lifetime and a year away from smart.

    ***Disclaimer***

    IQ ,while fundamentally flawed, is a clear indication of a certain aspect of ones cognitive ability. For instance, if a person can jump on average 6 inches higher than the average person, then isn’t it logical to assume that they can jump further than the average person? Therefore while crude a high IQ can generally indicate superior intelligence. But, for the sake of argument I am going to define intelligence from my own unique perspective. Intelligence is the ability to absorb information from an environment or thing and utilize it in a completely creative and efficient way indicating mastery. The rate at which a person can do this shows genius.

    I can only imagine how annoying it must be for a person who totally understands something to be forced to go over it again and again. I guess it must be like a broken record or a person starring at a white wall. Nevertheless, I feel the real danger of someone who can assimilate and master information that well is their lack of creativity. Its great to be able to play music well, but even greater to make amazing music. Its great to be able to understand the universe by conventional terms but even greater to understand its abstract meanings.

    The trend I see with most geniuses is that they are so smart they forget to be creative and apply it. Or even worse, they try to fit in with the norm. Hence I agree with the article. I find the most amazing accomplishments aren’t subject to the confines of academia but transcend it. Lets face it, school is made for normal people like me who’ll get cushy jobs and spend our lives at a 9-5. Which is no problem for a Normie because our lack of mental stimulation allows much room for mundane monotony. Like a gold fish swimming in circles. Nevertheless, a genius Has to be mentally stimulated and as such should not make school their focus. Instead they should find something they really love and peruse it despite academia. This article was targeted to the young ones btw.

    On an end note I find someone of superior intelligence trying to socialize with a group of retarded people redundant. Teach us yes, but don’t get annoyed if we can’t relate. I actually find it slightly stupid. Its like trying to teach a dog the alphabet.

  9. Al Says:

    I’m 17 and English isn’t my mother tongue, so excuse my mistakes.

    I’m not a wunderkid and I haven’t bothered to get my IQ tested – officially. Not that it matters, for I know people able to grasp and come up with complex mathematical ideas and yet are unable to realize the absurdity of life, being stuck with their platonic and Judeo-Christian viewpoints. My definition of intelligence interweaves with that of creativity in diverse fields. (Obviously I define concepts in a way that I can boost my ego).

    Anyway, what I’m interested in is your advice; next year I’m gonna start my undergraduate studies and I haven’t even decided the course. I can probably get myself into a top university in the UK (Cambridge or Imperial) but is it worth the effort? I’m interested in mathematics, philosophy, neuroscience, physics, literature, sociology, psychology, biology and, most of all, writing. I’m terrible at arts (music, painting/drawing) so, according to Gardner, my intelligence is probably existential/logico-mathematical. What should I do? I don’t feel like spending my life in search of a specific scientific idea or a chimerical artistic undertaking; if I am to get more philosophical, my agnosticism about everything (in the Discordianism sense) can’t really get me absorbed into something for a prolonged period of time. (I realize what I just is cyclic, for I could have ADHD and thus adopt a suitable philosophy. It’s Ouroboros, after all.)

    Looking forward to your replies.

    • Ken Says:

      My advice is the same I give to my children. If you are sure of your course and know what you want to acomplish, then fuck the system and go straight for it. If you’re unsure, then toe to the line until you become sure, by going the “normal” route. Get into a good school, get the most impressive sounding degree you can (physics always works), and move from there. The concept is that if you don’t know what you want, then it’s wise to keep your options open. You create more options for yourself by becoming “certified impressive.”


  10. Not sure if I will even get a reply since the last post on this blog was exactly one year and day ago but heck I will give it a shot. I completely understand the situation. I’ve been bored through all schooling, finding the work too easy for me to be in anyway challenging. Even my old teachers seem to understand my plight. To this day, I find myself lightyears ahead of my fellow peers and considering where I am, that probably isn’t saying much. I’ve also found that I can read lies and people in general extremely well. (That part is another long story) Sadly, I find myself often hating the education system for forcing me to be specialised. I don’t seem to be limited (naturally) to any one field but the school system (including college) expects this of me.

    I feel very alone in my area. I have a few intellectuals that I talk too but of course none of them are females. I also seem to bounce from one female to next, unable to pick one. (Probably because while they’re psyhically attractive, they lack the intellectual capacity to capivate; for the lack of a better metaphor, the heart.) Perhaps when I move to larger city, or maybe another country, I might be able to find my place in the world. I’ve recently taken steps to do this but of course I have to wait at least four months before I can move ahead.

    Looking forward to the rest of my life, and good luck to everyone else.

    • Ken Says:

      No posts, but lots of discussion!

      I’m assuming you’re in the equivalent of high school over there in Brisbane? I know in the states it’s possible to short circuit the process by home schooling for some months, and taking all the required tests to pass high school, then moving on. My older son did exactly that, and he started college at the same time his friends were starting high school.


      • Yes, just finished my final year. Mostly just trying to find a bachaelor that will allow me to be as varied (as well as respected) as possible. Probably medicine or academic sciences like mathematics and physics.

  11. Frank Says:

    I came across this website from a google search for “lonely genius”. I’d previously found the site but through a general “IQ” trawl and after all, context is everything. I have two problems:
    Firstly, I am unsure of how smart I really am. I’ve taken multiple high range IQ tests online with variations from 145 – 155, SD15. I’m not American so no GRE, SAT etc. conversion nor can I afford to pay a lot of money for an IQ test, which, if my scores are anything to go by, I should be close to the ceiling on.
    I only identified this uncertainty around my intelligence almost six years ago when a professor told me he had passed a paper, I’d written, around the department and none of them could make sense of it. I re-read that paper every few months and it makes sense to me but, of course, I don’t know anyone smarter than a professor to whom I could give my paper.
    Secondly, is my lack of peers compounded by my individual thinking style. That is, I do not place importance on facts, maintain an interest in science beyond conceptual interest or have any of the trivia gathering desire people at high IQ levels seems to exhibit. Grady Towers, hence my post here, himself described his own feeling of alienation within high IQ organisations as he found a lot of critical convergent thinkers and a dearth of divergent creative thinkers. Of course, I’d never come close to Promethean membership. Still, it makes me wonder whether, even with a congruity of intelligence, I would remain alienated.
    Anyway, I’m now 23 and I do sense that with high school rapidly receding I’ve gotten a lot more control over my learning. I also switched fields which has brought a lot of stress into my life as the filed I’m pursuing requires a lot of manual skill, which has nothing to do with IQ. Of course, the rest of the field is quite easy but it has somewhat increased my anger towards the education system. That, after 15 years there are still so many skills, which require years of practice, i.e. brute force 1000’s of hours, that I could have learned since all the rest was so easy.
    Anyway, I guess I should give some advice to anyone else like me. Become self-regulating emotionally, you won’t get praise for things you work hard on and the things that come naturally will receive too much praise. Don’t plan your learning, while most people can work towards goals, you will uncover areas to learn about as you go so choose a general area to learn about. When you get bored of something don’t dismiss it entirely rather leave it for the moment as when you do come back, trust me you will, you won’t have to start from the ground again. Finally, you cannot learn in the same style as others, i.e. like a tutorial, rather you need to learn the very basic fundamentals, which is often the advanced material in a course. For example, learning programming you will be much better served by reading about how bytes are read and written on a technical level before you ever do ‘Hello world’.
    Apologies for the aphorisms at the end but a younger version of myself could have done with that advice and here seems a likely place for them to find it.

  12. jino Says:

    Could you please tell me your ideas about how to become independently wealthy which you think not that difficult?

    I am just extremely lazy, I know some ways to become wealthy, but the question is whether I would like to commit myself to that labour. What is the easiest way, with least effort, to become financially independent? Maybe I am missing an important point.

    I just want to pursue my interests, rather than having to wake up every morning to pursue the financial interests of a company. My IQ is above 170. Just trying to pass the time with least pain waiting to die…

  13. Daniel Ruthford Says:

    Well, a lot has changed for me in the past three months. I have moved to another city and now attending university. I have found numerous ways of making large sums of money and becoming a lot happier since the move. I have therapist whose working on my problems that have resulted parental neglect.

    It ain’t very hard to make money but it sure is very annoying at the start.

    • alex Says:

      you sound exactly like me!
      maybe we can chat sometime… itd be nice to talk to someone like me, and whose dealt with the situations i’m going through right now…

      • Daniel Ruthford Says:

        Sure, I don’t mind at all. 🙂

        • Anna O'Halloran Says:

          Daniel this comment may be way out of date but I reply for the benefit of all. I am the mother of a gifted son and the ex of a mad but brilliant man. As a child I also felt lost and dumbed down to fit in. However when I hear of bright young people switching off their brains because it is all too boring at school I cannot accept that as an outcome of intellectual brilliance. We live in a free country, there is interest and opportunity everywhere, just as Ken says … find your passion. What you are looking for is not other smart people (they will come your way naturally) but an opening of your heart. Recent studies have shown there is a neurological interplay between the heart and brain such that some thinking is done with the heart organ. The task of this leading edge of humanity of which you are a part is to advance the integration of heart and mind in your field of endeavour. Integrated thinking in Mathematics, software development, physics and the natural sciences will lead to the ending of war, starvation and planetry destruction. I can see it as possible but the people with the vision have to come together with the people who can make it happen technically and practically. Maybe you can. The future isn’t about making money. That’s just a peice of paper or a number on a screen. It’s meaning is ascribed. It could go poof tomorrow. The future is about understanding ideology and the meaning we give to things. Genetically modified grains and increased yields haven’t reduced starvation. Nor has donations of money. Understanding power relations and conflicting ideologies will. So, learn to hold an intelligent philosophical discussion when the raw maths is too boring, and remember it’s not about holding an opinion but discovering how many other interesting viewpoints there are.

          Eg. It’s not a females job to captivate your heart. There are just as many intelligent females as males in the world if you open your eyes. I’m sure you’ll look back with amusement on what you wrote in October 2010. Life is good.


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